The New Liturgist on Taping Fruit to Trees



by Ian Morgan Cron
[courtesy of Immerse Journal]


Thomas Merton was one of the great religious masters of the 20th century. Trappist monk, writer, social critic, activist, poet, photographer and painter, Merton’s capacity to articulate the ways that ordinary men and women could live extraordinary spiritual lives is unparalleled. He has marked my life more than any other Christian thinker.
I became a follower of Jesus in Young Life in the 1970s. After “giving our lives to Christ,” my leader told my friends and me that the focus of our lives was to “become like Jesus.” We took this project to heart. We scoured the Gospels, cataloging the actions and attitude of Jesus so we could mimic them, believing this was what it meant to be conformed to the image of Christ.
More often than not, this effort led to feelings of shame when we failed to live up to the ideal of Jesus, or worse, to a spirit of smug superiority when we managed to get it right. In the words of Mark Twain, many of us became “good in the worst sense of the word.” I fear that this reductive approach of imitative discipleship remains popular in many quarters.
For me, the problem with reducing spiritual formation to simply imitating Jesus was that it was confusing. The more I focused my energies on acting like Jesus, the more confused I became about my own God-given identity. In becoming like Jesus, was I being asked to sublimate or self-negate my own unique person?
Not only was imitating the life of Jesus confusing, it also felt inauthentic. Most of the time, I was just taping fruit to the tree and calling it spiritual growth. In the end no one could give me a clear answer about how this process of becoming like Jesus really worked.
Then I read Merton.
In Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation, I came across a liberating statement that clarified my understanding about the end game of spiritual formation.
Merton writes, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
At first, I bristled when I read this statement. It sounded like Merton was encouraging a model of spiritual formation that was excessively self-interested—one that was all about me rather than all about Jesus. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth! This statement should be a mantra for people who care about spiritual formation.
Merton believed that each of us goes through life shadowed by an illusory person Merton calls the false self. The false self is a distortion of our true being. It is an empty and manipulative persona whose goal is to get the rest of the world to revolve around our egocentric desires. It seeks to convince others that it has the credentials and right to rule its own little kingdom, not to mention everyone else’s.
The false self scans the environment while asking the questions, “What mask must I wear right now to convince others and myself that I am in ultimate control of my fate? What social image do I need to project that will fool others into believing that I can make life work apart from God? What do I need to do to manipulate others to admire me?” The false self is the locus of sin.
The person who is no longer content to live life hidden from God, herself and others is moving toward the true self. Unlike Adam, who covered himself and hid from God in the garden, the true self wants to know and be known by God.
In Merton’s An Invitation to the Contemplative Life, editor Wayne Simsic describes the true self as that part of us that has “let go of any pretense of ultimate control. It embraces gifts, talents, skills, and body as wondrous graces from a loving God. The true self . . . seeks only to do the will of God, which is, simply put, to love. The true self finds rest in God’s embrace; it is the self at home in the person of Jesus Christ.”
If the false self seeks to “exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love,” then the true self seeks to live theo-centrically, deeply embedded in the loving heart of God.
What would happen if we were to frame the journey of spiritual formation as being about confronting and deconstructing the false self so the true self can gradually emerge, to live in naked, honest, authentic relationship with God? What would it look like to employ a spiritual formation model that includes weaning ourselves off the need to live behind the mask of the tyrannical false self so we can become truly ourselves? Is it possible that becoming truly oneself is what being conformed to the image of Jesus means?
The false self will not go quietly. Dismantling the scaffolding of our false selves and encouraging our true selves to emerge is a painful, frightening and lifelong journey. As Richard Rohr writes, though, “Once you learn to live as your true self, you can never be satisfied with this charade again: it then feels so silly and superficial.”



Ian Morgan Cron is a nationally recognized speaker, and the bestselling author of Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: a Memoir . . . of Sorts and Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale. He lives in Franklin, Tennessee.

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